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The Nutritional Gains from Trade: Enhancement of Food Utilization from Trade in Genetically Modified Food and Crops

By Rachel Paige Casey

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Ending hunger, achieving global food security, and improving nutrition by 2030 is an enormous challenge.1 Climate change, conflict, disease, soil degradation, and adverse agricultural policies all have the potential to slow such progress. Even today, the state of global food security is marked by ubiquitous food insecurity, with almost 750 million undernourished individuals and a significant share of children under 5 years of age underweight around the world.2

Among the more controversial methods currently used to achieve food security is the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) foods and crops.3 While proponents of GM crops tout their lower production costs, higher yields, and improved nutritional value, critics allege that they may have an adverse effect on human health.4 Despite strong evidence against this critque, GM crops are subject to many legal restrictions throughout the world, including some outright bans. In May 2016, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report providing strong evidence in favor of GM foods and crops. Despite this publication and many others, resistance to genetic modification persists, even in countries with high levels of food insecurity where the technology would be of great benefit.5 Through a statistical analysis of countries with and without GM food import bans, this article demonstrates that such bans may have a negative effect on key indicators of food security in those countries.

Food security prevails when all individuals in a specified region have constant physical, economic, and social access to adequate, safe, and nutritious food.6 Conversely, food insecurity prevails when any individual lacks such access either due to insufficient availability, economic barriers, or social restrictions. Taken together, these two concepts illustrate the four dimensions of food security: access, availability, stabilization, and utilization.7

Algeria, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Peru, Russia, and Venezuela all currently maintain import bans on GM foods and crops. Among this set of countries, all but Peru are net importers of food and agricultural products.8 Of the 188 countries ranked by the 2014 human development index (HDI), a general measure of national wellbeing, none of the seven countries were in the top quartile.9 All of the nations that maintain import bans exhibit relatively high levels of income inequality.10

Table 1: Dimensions of Food Security11



For this analysis, four regression models measure the effects of GM food and crop import bans on each dimension of food security. Regression models assess statistical relationships between two or more variables, and provide a line of best fit through the data distribution to illustrate the connection between the dependent and independent variables.12 In this study, the dependent variable for each model is an indicator for each of the four dimensions of food security from Table 1, while the primary independent variable is the existence of an import ban on GM foods and crops, present in the seven aforementioned countries.

The first dimension of food security, access, is assessed using the prevalence of undernourishment, the proportion of a country’s population whose dietary consumption falls short of minimum energy intake levels.13 Availability is gauged by the average dietary energy supply.14 For stabilization, the domestic food price volatility index measures the changes in domestic food prices over time (a higher value indicates his volatility in food prices).15 Access to improved sanitation facilities, the indicator for utilization, enables people to practice good hygiene so that their bodies can consume food and function healthily.16

Several controls included in the models account for differences in national income, HDI, a country’s classification as a least-developed country, and five governance indicators. These models employ cross-sectional data for 2014 and averages for the period between 2013 and 2015 in the cases of prevalence of undernourishment and average dietary energy supply. Figure 1 presents the four models analyzed in this article, including the dependent variables, independent variable, and controls.

Figure 1: Models

Evidence from this analysis suggests that the existence of an import ban on genetically engineered foods and crops has a statistically significant impact on food utilization. This suggests a correlation between an import ban and a 9.63 percent reduction in the percentage of the population with access to improved sanitation facilities.

This result supports the idea that a ban would be detrimental to food security, at least with regard to food utilization.

This result supports the idea that a ban would be detrimental to food security, at least with regard to food utilization. Food utilization is defined as “safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs,” a necessity for the body to adequately absorb the nutrition of food, which enables an individual to live and work more productively.17 Utilization requires individuals to have clean drinking water, sufficient sanitary facilities, and safe food preparation and storage.18 The correlation between GM food import bans and a significant loss in access to sanitation facilities corroborates the conclusion of the National Academies that GM foods are safe. Figure 2 shows the food utilization model line of best fit, along with the prediction values of the regression analysis using the access to improved sanitation facilities indicator.

Figure 2: Scatterplot and Line of Best Fit for Food Utilization Model Regression

Particular control variables showed statistically significant results as well. HDI demonstrated a statistically significant relationship with average dietary energy supply and access to improved sanitation facilities, respectively. Political stability and the absence of violence and terrorism, as well as the rule of law, were statistically significant for average dietary energy supply as well. Regulatory quality was statistically significant for domestic food price variability index.

Expanded academic research should be conducted on the effects of GM food labeling policies and GM crop cultivation restrictions on food security. This study lacked disaggregated trade data specific to the exchange of genetically modified foods and crops. Furthermore, this study could be improved by the creation of an index or composite estimate for each of the four dimensions of food security, to include a variety of sub-components for each.

Nonetheless, the results of this analysis highlight the importance of international trade in GM foods and crops on improving food security, especially in developing countries. Although a single study is insufficient to claim certainty, countries with GM bans and restrictions should consider relaxing the limitations placed on GM imports in order to better nourish their citizens. GM foods provide an opportunity not only to purchase more and higher quality food from abroad, but also to increase agricultural output domestically. This also presents a potential opportunity for the U.S. development policy. The Department of Agriculture, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), and USAID should collaborate on research and initiatives to expand trade relationships, broaden markets for U.S. farmers, and improve global food security.

Rachel Paige Casey was a research intern with the Project on Prosperity and Development and the Project on U.S. Leadership in Development at CSIS.

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